Monday, September 29, 2008

Beauty & Pain

I thought I'd share this brief item from a mid-September issue of the New Scientist with you. I think there are implications for HCI, and a connection to value sensitive design. 

In pain? Take one masterpiece, three times a day

18 September 2008
From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.

THE power of art to heal emotional wounds is well known, but could contemplating a beautiful painting have the same effect on physical pain?

To investigate, Marina de Tommaso and a team from the University of Bari in Italy asked 12 men and women to pick the 20 paintings they considered most ugly and most beautiful from a selection of 300 works by artists such as da Vinci and Botticelli.

They were then asked to contemplate either the beautiful paintings, or the ugly painting, or a blank panel while the team zapped a short laser pulse at their hand, creating a pricking sensation.

The subjects rated the pain as being a third less intense while they were viewing the beautiful paintings, compared with contemplating the ugly paintings or the blank panel. Electrodes measuring the brain's electrical activity suggested a reduced response to the pain when the subject looked at beautiful paintings (Consciousness and Cognition, DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2008.07.002).

While distractions are known to reduce pain in hospital patients, de Tommaso says this is the first result to show that beauty plays a part. "Hospitals have been designed to be functional, but we think that their aesthetic aspects should be taken into account too," she says.

The Human Brain - With one hundred billion nerve cells, the complexity is mind-boggling. Learn more in our cutting edge special report.

From issue 2674 of New Scientist magazine, 18 September 2008, page 14

It would be interesting to design an experiment along these lines for an interface. 
a) present the test group with 20 interfaces, let them pick the most beautiful and the ugliest
b) assign each individual to focus on a blank screen, a beautiful interface, or an ugly one until a prompt appears
c) instead of a pain-inducing laser, use a 'critical failure' message, a 'something very bad has happened message'
d) ask the user to rate the level of pain/annoyance
Then determine whether the 'beautiful' interface moderates the effects of the error message ... or something along these lines. I bet you can think of a better experiment along these lines than I have! ~Matt Rolph

Is this a beautiful interface? Is the technology it serves as a gateway to more frustrating than average? Less? About the same? If an interface is beautiful, can that moderate frustration (presuming that what can go wrong always will, that there will be something frustrating about using even the best design)? Image from:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That is an interesting observation on pain and acceptance. Maybe we can do an experiment in class like what you suggest. I'd like to try it.